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How Death Practice Meditation Can Make You Happier

This week has been full of surprises. I never thought that thinking about death and dying would bring me happiness, or that there was already a thousand-year-old Buddhist death practice meditation, or of all people, I would be introduced to the subject by Chris Hemsworth (AKA Thor from Avengers movies) in his National Geographic docu-series ‘Limitless‘.

The subject has opened up a fascinating rabbit hole into the world of the mindfulness of death which practitioners claim will bring you happiness, improve your connection with loved ones, and reduce the fear of your own death.

So in this article, I’ll share everything I’ve learned about practicing death meditation and help you discover if it’s right for you, and at the end of this post, give you the opportunity to try death meditation.

Death Practice: Chris Hemsworth in 'Limitless' talking with death doula while standing over a coffin.
Death Practice: Chris Hemsworth in ‘Limitless’ talking with a death doula while standing over a coffin.

Should you practice mindfulness of death?

Mindfulness of death is different from other forms of mindfulness meditation. Normally in mindfulness meditation, you are focusing on the present, usually your breath, but during meditation on death, you are focusing on something out of the present. It’s more like a visualization meditation in that you are projecting your mind elsewhere.

Contemplation of death can be psychologically dangerous to some. For example, children don’t have a full understanding of death, so the experience would be traumatizing. Also, those that have psychological traumas or existing conditions should approach the practice carefully.

If you have any concerns about the practice, it’s best to do it in a group in a recognized center, or as a guided meditation with an experienced guide.

What is death meditation?

Death awareness meditation is actually about death. It’s more about living and more importantly, living well.

Most people have a healthy fear of dying, and one of the ways we deal with it is by pretending it will never actually happen to us, or not thinking about it at all.

The Guardian has a fantastic video titled ‘Can a death meditation cure my anxiety?‘ where Journalist, Leah Green, visits a ‘death doula’ to help her overcome her fear of death.

“I guess I’ve always thought about myself dying as happening in this alien world, in this alien body in this kind of horrible place but when you realize that it’s this world, this body, stuff that you’re familiar with it doesn’t seem quite as horrifying in a way.”

The contemplation of death varies from a general awareness of the impermanence of life, all the way to the quite morbid visualization of observing yourself dying and then decaying into the earth.

The oldest record of death awareness meditation goes back to ancient Buddism in the practice of Maranasati meditation. Maranasati is a collection of meditations with the intention of creating appreciation and gratitude for life knowing that death could happen at any moment.

At its core, death meditation is the visualization of you, or the ones around you dying, to create gratitude for everything you have, and could have while you are living.

Death practice: Man meditating on a yoga mat
Death practice: Types of death practices

Are all types of death practices the same?

Nearly all practices involve first starting with a mindfulness meditation practice, to calm the mind and become more mindful of your emotions, there should always be the recognition that this is a safe practice and that you are exploring positive outcomes from this significant part of human life.

The nine-point meditation of death

One of the most popular practices of death awareness meditation is the nine points. It gradually works you towards the inevitability of death and dying. You can find the full process here, but the summary of the steps is as follows:

  1. Everyone has to die – In this step, you visualize people that have lived and died, either people you know or famous people.
  2. Your lifespan is decreasing continuously – Now we go from everyone else – to you. In this step, you become aware that time is always moving forward and that the time you have is always decreasing.
  3. The time you have to be at peace with yourself or practice spirituality – whether you are Buddhist, follow any religion, or just want to be a good person, this step is to realize that the time you have to be kind to others and practice things that help us feel at peace is always decreasing.
  4. Human life expectancy is uncertain – We don’t all die at the same time or the same age. This step is the awareness that day we are going to die is unknown. Most of us always think it’s some faraway age in the future.
  5. There are lots of ways we can die – In this step, we are coming to terms that we are going to die and there is an infinite number of ways it can happen.
  6. The human body is fragile – I’m certainly feeling this at my age, but this step is to contemplate how vulnerable our bodies are. An injury or illness can be the reason we lose our life.
  7. Your loved ones can not help you and you can not help them – If you’ve ever been on a flight during severe turbulence you probably notice two things; how religious you become, and how you think about those you love. One of the causes of anxiety when thinking of death is your relation to the ones you love. In this step, you practice accepting that when death comes your loved ones can not help us.
  8. Your possessions and indulgences cannot help – The common trope that you can’t take it (possessions) with you is true, but many of us still live like it isn’t true. This step is to realize that at the time of death, would you be more content knowing that you have lived life well, or that you have gathered things?
  9. Your body can not help – In this step, we are contemplating the fact that no matter what we do to increase our mortality, whether that’s a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep, or surgery, ultimately our body is going to give up.

‘If I had…’ exercise

Another exercise is to practice contemplating all the things you would do if you had a certain amount of time before your death. Again it’s best to do this after meditating in the classical sense to be more aware of yourself and be calm of mind.

  1. Start by contemplating what you would do if you had a year left to live and write it done.
  2. Then consider what you would do if you had six months left to live, and write that down.
  3. Then one month to live, and write it down.
  4. The one week to live. What would you do that week, and write it down?
  5. And then if you had just 24 hours left, what would you do? Write it down.

The corpse

Another form of death awareness is practicing imagining your corpse decaying until everything is gone to the earth. It’s quite graphic, but the purpose is really to overcome the fear of death and also improve your gratitude for everyday life.

Death practice: Man lying down while someone is using a singing bowl over their head
Death practice: The benefits of death meditation

What are the benefits of death meditation?

Death is scary, we are always either fighting for it not to happen, or we are pretending that it only happens to other people, but facing the fact that we are going to one day die has several benefits:

  1. Practicing being dead helps us to overcome the fear of dying. So when the time does come we can do it peacefully.
  2. Death awareness helps us to be grateful for every moment in our lives.
  3. The more gratitude we have for these moments, it easier it is for us to be mindful of the moments we have.
  4. Knowing that our time is finite help us make choices that are wiser, kinder, intellectually deeper, and less about instant gratification.
  5. Awareness of our mortality helps us be more aware of important relationships in our lives and how some of our differences aren’t important enough to keep from those we love.

If death meditation is found in Buddhist meditation is it religious or spiritual?

Death awareness is based on Buddhist meditations called Maranasati. But mindfulness of death as well as being a spiritual exercise is also a psychological practice. Whether or not we believe in life after death, death itself is a certainty.

For those with a spiritual inclination, death awareness can help you find morality through mortality. And for those not so inclined, meditating about death helps us deal with the impermanence of life and be grateful for the life we have.

How has mindfulness of death helped me?

Straight after my first experience with mindfulness of death, I hugged my wife and told her I loved her, I had a conversation with her during dinner instead of watching NetFlix, I face timed my mother to see how she was, and I messages my brother to ask how he was (I never ask my brother how he is).

I’m writing just after Christmas which makes me think about Scrooge, how faced with seeing how he has lived, how he has affected others, and finally seeing what becomes of him after his death propels him to be kinder and more generous to all of mankind, “Every one!”

The Takeaway

Death is a teacher that we often ignore. But as we grow older, there are often times when we wish we paid more attention at school. The mindfulness of death helps to give a deeper appreciation of life. What most people expect to be a depressing experience is often moving and inspiring and can motivate us to enjoy a kinder and happier life.

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